President Barack Obama told Americans on Wednesday he had authorized U.S. airstrikes for the first time in Syria and more attacks in Iraq in a broad escalation of a campaign against the Islamic State militant group.
Obama’s decision to launch attacks inside Syria, which is embroiled in a three-year civil war, marked a turnabout for the president, who shied away a year ago from airstrikes to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.
In a widely anticipated, 13-minute White House speech, Obama said he would hunt down Islamic State militants “wherever they are” in a drive to degrade and ultimately destroy the group, which has seized broad stretches of Iraq and Syria.
“That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” he said, speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama asked Congress to authorize $500 million to train and arm “moderate” Syrian rebels. The training would take place in Saudi Arabia.
It is unclear whether more American weapons and training can shift the battlefield balance toward the U.S.-backed rebels, who are badly outgunned by Islamic State, other militant groups and Assad’s forces.
A vote on the money would put lawmakers on record supporting the military action, although White House officials stressed Obama already had the authority he needed for the new moves.
Obama plans to expand the list of targets inside Iraq beyond several isolated areas. The U.S. military has launched more than 150 airstrikes in Iraq in the past month to help halt Islamic State advances.
The new target list will include Islamic State’s “leadership, logistical and operational capability,” as well as an attempt to “deny it sanctuary and resources to plan, prepare and execute attacks,” the White House said.
U.S. officials have warned it will take years to destroy Islamic State, and Obama told Americans: “It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL,” the White House’s acronym for the militant group.